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‘Silicon Valley’: Sympathy for the devils

The fifth season of Mike Judge's HBO comedy explores how power turns even the mild-mannered into monsters

A still from Silicon Valley
A still from Silicon Valley

Rejoice, O lovers of comedy, for Mike Judge’s excellent Silicon Valley is back, and sharp as ever in its oscillations between the subversive and the slapstick. The HBO show has long been applauded for its brilliant, scathing but honest portrayal of the absurdly self-referential world of cutting-edge technology, and the thrill lies in the show’s most outlandish traits turning out to be all too real. In last year’s episode The Blood Boy, for example, a frighteningly fit man—referred to as a “muscle-bound handsome Adonis"—showed up at a tech mogul’s house to provide the billionaire with his healthy young blood, a concept that sounds ludicrous till you look it up and discover that this process, called Parabiosis, exists, as do corresponding start-ups offering the service, and that it is something tech icon Peter Thiel is rumoured to have tried.

The maddest bits, therefore, are disturbingly true, while the silliest and most vulgar gags circuitously lead to the greatest epiphanies. It’s this gorgeous balance between the barely believable and the entirely unpredictable that makes this show about an uncool bunch of coders such a stunning bit of television software. The fifth season just showed up—imagine hearing the Macintosh welcome chime as you read this sentence—with the first episode now out on Hotstar, and it will be broadcast weekly on Star World Premiere HD from 31 March. The show is still fiendishly clever, but I must report things are not as uproarious.

This is partly because the team can’t come to grips with success. Our heroes and their fictional start-up Pied Piper have moved on from the relatively modest goal of a super-efficient compression algorithm (to allow swifter downloading/streaming/storage of data) to something groundbreaking: the creation of a new decentralized internet. This could literally change the world. It is a giant idea made immensely pertinent at a time when online privacy and the breaching of data are scorching hot topics, and this has led to wealth and hype for our loser leading men. The last season ended with them getting significant funding, but while they can indeed “afford an office with windows and air", they are reluctant to exit their box of self-doubt.

This season—I have watched the first three episodes—deals with their inability to shrug off the underdog label they have outgrown. More than anything, this is a season about monsters. The obvious meaning is that it looks at how power (and being repeatedly stepped on) turns relatively mild-mannered nerds into vicious bullies, something the show flirted with dramatically last season but seems intent on exploring more subtly and believably now.

Yet the pitchforks seem to have been laid down. While leading man Richard Hendricks may indeed be corrupted by power, his possible monsterification takes place while he is also being rendered incontinent by the fear of public speaking. We even feel bad for self-obsessed hounds like Gavin Belson—the blood-boy using scoundrel—because entitled millennials trample without qualm across his legacy, and I must say my heart bled for a dead character being replaced by a burnt-up pig. The show always skewered self-importance, but now it seems to suggest that the monsters are not all bad. This approach is at once more thought-provoking and less raucous than a world of irredeemable buffoons, and the tempo has dropped.

This does not have to be a bad thing, just a different one. The narrative now rests on the tall shoulders of the gifted Zach Woods, whose character is called Jared, is armed with an appalling backstory, and happens to be incapable of evil. He is the lead now, and Silicon Valley needs to recognize that and pivot away from Hendricks and his self-destruction.

The other reason the show can’t match its own peak hilarity is the absence of T.J. Miller. The actor left the show following reports of violent and unprofessional behaviour, and, while we may not be meant to sympathize with Miller, the show misses him. His character Erlich Bachman, high on ego and weed, provided the most memorable laughs. It is true Silicon Valley might not strictly have needed Bachman any more; he had become superfluous to the narrative, and the other characters came into their own. We know this. Still, he was the uptick, and his absence feels less like a feature and more like a bug. Obsolescence never gets in the way of affection. So long, Erlich Bachman. You were the headphone jack.

There’s no business like Osho business

The idea of West Coast residents being provoked into malevolence takes on an entirely different tone with Wild Wild Country, a gripping six-part documentary on Netflix. The year is 1981, and the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh—known as Osho—is relocating from Pune, which can no longer contain its sprawl, to a ranch in Oregon, outside the sleepy little town of Antelope. The Rajneesh followers, or Rajneeshees, are unstoppable as they lay down roots, even rechristening the address of Antelope to “Rajneesh, Oregon". All while America watches, helpless and bigoted and afraid.

The film is directed by brothers Maclain and Chapmain Way (and produced by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, performers and writers at the head of the mumblecore movement) and not only does it provide sensational footage and dramatically articulate talking heads who believe every word they mouth—even if it is hard to agree with either extreme—it introduces us to fascinating characters like Ma Sheela Anand.

Sheela, administrative head of the Rajneesh empire, is wildly compelling, the sort of character who should immediately have a biopic made (starring Kangana Ranaut). She speaks with clarity and absolute conviction even as her moves become increasingly unsavoury. She professes to being driven by love and devotion, and, finally, vengeance against the mostly Republican politicians trying to shut down the expanding Rajneeshees.

The documentarians shy away from taking sides. Osho himself—referred to, by the reverential and accented speakers, as “Bag-One"—is bewilderingly and befittingly silent, mostly shown mounting and dismounting Rolls-Royces. Watch the series, make up your mind, and buckle up for debate. Wild Wild Country is a toast to our ability to argue.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. @rajasen

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